It was fitting that Atalanta were driven to arguably their most memorable European result by their own diminutive and inspirational No.10 on the day that football lost the greatest to ever fit that description.
Diego Maradona’s passing shocked the world on Wednesday. Naples was illuminated in memory of their adopted son, Argentina declared three days of mourning, and tributes from everyone involved in football flooded social media.
There has never been another player quite like him. Lionel Messi is constantly compared with his compatriot, which is to be expected given the similarities in their game. But football isn’t just about what happens on the pitch. So much of it is intangible, and Maradona perhaps demonstrates that best. He was an icon, and he was loved like a son or a brother to so many.
“We’re going to miss you a lot,” Atalanta’s Papu Gomez wrote on Instagram upon hearing of El Diego‘s passing before the game on Wednesday, “all of us Argentines and all of us who dream of wearing that number.
“Football also died today. You gave joy to so many people.”
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Grieving, Gomez channelled his emotions in the best way imaginable at Anfield, and he was instrumental in guiding Atalanta to a 2-0 win away at the Premier League champions.
From early on, the Argentine dictated the tempo and wriggled away from the nearest Reds player just when they had thought they were close enough to mark him, though that won’t have come as a great surprise to their boss.
“We think Gomez is up front, but Gomez is everywhere,” Jurgen Klopp told BT Sport pre-match, evidently trying to make sense of Gian Piero Gasperini’s XI on live television.
Klopp, in so few words, perfectly described what Papu has become under Gasperini. Initially a left-winger, he then moved in to occupy a No.10 role, but for 18 months he’s been doing so much more – he’s been doing it all. In possession, he’s become a regista and a trequartista all rolled into one, depending on where on the pitch La Dea are in possession, and how many players have already galloped forward to join the attack. Without the ball, he’s a battling ball-winning midfielder, which he’s too seldom credited for.
Papu knocked and knocked, but Liverpool’s door wouldn’t open for the first half. In the second, though, he found the right key.
Finding himself in a pocket of space between the hosts’ midfield and defence, Gomez curled an inch-perfect ball into Alisson Becker’s box. It was just close enough to goal that the defenders couldn’t deal with it and the Brazilian was teased to come for it, but just far enough away that he couldn’t reach it before Josip Ilicic stretched out his right foot to open the scoring.
Four minutes later, Gomez delivered again. From more or less the same part of the pitch, he curled another cross to the back post for Hans Hateboer to knock into Robin Gosens’ path for the second, and then it was backs to the wall.
Gomez spent the rest of his evening fighting in front of his own area and giving his teammates crucial breathing time when he had the ball as he carried it into the Liverpool half.
Atalanta’s captain was at his very best on Wednesday. He was twinkle-toed and a delight to watch, as he has so often been for the Nerazzurri.
Papu Gomez grew up dreaming of Diego Maradona, dreaming of wearing that No.10 and being given hope by the Napoli’s legend’s excellence. At Anfield, he showed the world why a generation in Bergamo will grow up with those same dreams of wearing that shirt.